Last week I attended our National Institutes of the Biosciences conference, this time held at the Roslin Institute, where (as last time in Norwich) we heard a range of absolutely stunning talks across the range of our remit, as you would expect from a country whose biological science is number one in the world. It would be quite egregious to pick out any or many “highlights”, but a major point of a conference such as this is the cross-fertilisation that comes when you bring different experts together with different knowledge, techniques and background, but which – because of the essential unity of biology, and indeed of science – can be applied elsewhere. So for my own work – which only infrequently includes mammalian cell biology, and whose conferences I almost never attend – I saw some fabulous images of intracellular organisation (as in this paper) from Peter Fraser and colleagues at Babraham, using one method which may be of considerable use for a problem in which I am interested. The fruits of modern genome sequencing methods (as in that of an ash dieback survivor) were also becoming especially manifest at this meeting (which also featured a call for more ‘mathematicians’ sensu lato in biology). I myself gave a plenary on our drug transporter systems biology work (as in this and this). I particularly enjoyed a plenary from Edinburgh’s Andrew Millar, who (after a typically erudite rehearsal of his work on the systems biology of circadian clocks, including cases that required no transcription) showed us how some fairly straightforward modelling explained why banking and other financial systems lacking the appropriate negative feedback loops (i.e. proper regulation) were doomed to explode. Some simple remedies exist (see an excellent paper (pdf) from the IMF for instance, and the New Economics Foundation). 90-97% of all present debt has been created by commercial banks lending money to people using (or against) assets they did not entirely have, a well-tested recipe for disaster, and one with an obvious and well-established set of solutions (also already explained by Haldane and May, among others). [...]
The first external visit of the week was to Unilever’s research laboratory at Port Sunlight. As a company with interests in food, health and healthcare, and with a published intention to move towards full sustainability of its value chain by 2020, it was not surprising to see that their strategic interests map closely onto our own.
We had a useful meeting on the Norwich Research Park with the Directors and Directors of operations of our strategically funded Institutes, including updates on campus developments, plans for sharing facilities and much else.
We also had one of our regular meetings with the Technology Strategy Board. Although there is very frequent and considerable coworking at every level, these meetings, as for those with the Institutes, serve as effective fora to exchange thoughts and knowledge of our activities and strategies. [...]
My first public engagement of the week was an appearance – together with my colleague Marion Guillou, the president of INRA – to give evidence before the House of Lords Select Committee EU Sub-Committee D on Innovation in EU Agriculture. RCUK had already provided written evidence, as had some of our Institutes. The questions were sharp and exploratory, and allowed us to develop a considerable number of the relevant arguments. Since an audio record is available, and a video record and corrected transcript will become available via the same website before too long, I do not rehearse these arguments further. Last week’s publication of Global Food and Farming Futures also helped, and there was also an announcement that the Government will soon be publishing its thoughts on the commercial production of genetically modified (i.e. via recombinant technology) crops. [...]
Last week I attended the annual Science Foo camp (twitter hashtag #scifoo) ‘unconference’, held at the Googleplex outside San Francisco. Just as last year, topics were determined by attendees offering sessions in one of 14 rooms they considered appropriate to the anticipated audience size.
The first session I attended was on the evolution of beauty, and topics discussed ranged from the natural world (e.g. bird feathers) via language and the co-evolution of art and its appreciation. We also saw a demo of some linguistic analyses of various writers, that allows one to discover whether one’s style if more like that of Shakespeare or of Beatrix Potter (for instance). I then attended one by Hod Lipson on the automation of science, including various strategies for automated reasoning and scientific discovery, similar in essence to the Robot Scientist project, and including a useful site for generating equations or rules from data, based on what is usually referred to as genetic programming. [...]
I blog fairly regularly about data-driven science, and the emerging ‘fourth paradigm’ of data-intensive research, in which – when the considerable technical challenges involved are better solved – significant computational power will be brought to bear to discover new knowledge from large, online, digital data sets. As part of a week-long Data-Intensive Research workshop (tweeted with the hashtag #datares) at the National E-Science Centre I gave a talk last Monday setting out our interests, needs and expectations, especially as they related to the voluminous genomics data becoming available. Through the wonders of the net, I was able both to follow other talks, and give my own, remotely. [...]